Normally at this time of year Hong Kong media are bustling to prepare coverage of Friday’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre which, before Covid restrictions hit, usually included a huge vigil in Victoria Park. The event is illegal in China but had been proudly held in Hong Kong for decades.
But this year journalists at the respected public broadcaster RTHK say they’ve been told to stand down.
“We were informed that no political story is allowed,” says Emily*, an RTHK employee who, along with others interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity to speak freely. “We think it’s kind of funny because what isn’t a political story now?”
After mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, the Hong Kong government’s worsening crackdown on dissent over the past two years has also targeted press freedom. Once ranked 18th in the world press freedom index, Hong Kong now sits at 80th.
RTHK is bearing the brunt, and many in the industry fear those in power intend to turn it into a propaganda department. Chris Yeung, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, says the patience the government and pro-establishment camp once had for RTHK’s editorial freedom has run out.
“They can no longer tolerate a government department giving critical and at times embarrassing coverage in their editorial content,” Yeung says, adding the government wants to “rectify” the broadcaster.
Its fate is a warning to the rest of the industry, says Emily. “If RTHK becomes propaganda, it’s also the death of Hong Kong media.”
‘No room for proper journalism’
Established in 1928, RTHK is an award-winning, public broadcaster. But over recent months it has been accused of bias, being too independent, and taking the side of pro-democracy protesters instead of upholding charter obligations to promote “one country two systems”.
RTHK has been publicly criticised by officials and attacked in Chinese state media. Journalists have been suspended, doxed, and harassed into resignation over their questioning. A producer has been prosecuted over an act of journalistic research, and new rules announced last week will require all non-civil service government employees, including RTHK staff, to pledge allegiance to the government.
After a highly critical government review found RTHK to have deficiencies in editorial management and accountability in February, the then director, Leung Ka-wing, left before the end of his contract, farewelled without thanks. A least five other senior staff have also resigned. Leung was replaced by former deputy home affairs secretary Patrick Li, a career bureaucrat with no journalism experience, who told legislators he intends to be hands on with the broadcaster, with plans for programs promoting government policies, and mainland media collaborations.
One of Li’s first acts was to establish vetting and approval processes for all story pitches, including proposed interviewees, which is what Emily says meant the Tiananmen coverage was rejected.
Another RTHK employee, Ann* says the system is “destructive” to the editorial team. “We don’t know what to do or what story can be aired … There is no room for proper journalism.”
Based on the panel’s guidelines, RTHK has cut back or cancelled at least 10 programs – including an already-aired segment about the Tiananmen anniversary last week – and deleted entire online archives.
Free airtime is now being filled by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, in a daily program reportedly discussing the government’s overhaul of the electoral system.
“The charter states that RTHK is editorially independent. It does not say that an individual programme production unit is editorially independent,” Li told Legco in March.
The changes, which Emily describes as an “earthquake”, appear concentrated in RTHK’s public affairs division, home to more historically “rebellious” programs, such as the canned satirical show Headliner, and current affairs program Hong Kong Connection.
In a statement, RTHK management said three episodes of Hong Kong Connection, Hong Kong Stories, and LegCo Review “were not impartial, unbiased and accurate”, and were cancelled because they had been made before the vetting system was in place, and “could not be rectified before production”.
Hong Kong Connection has won multiple awards this year, including for an episode investigating police involvement in the notorious Yuen Long subway attacks.
The morning after the show won one of the awards, a producer, Bao Choy, was convicted and fined for accessing a publicly available database as part of her investigative work for the episode.
The pervasive assumption is that Apple Daily, the pro-democracy tabloid owned by jailed media tycoon and government critic Jimmy Lai, is next in line. Apple Daily’s editor in chief, Ryan Law, told Agence France-Presse recently he was facing “the greatest crisis since I took up the post over three years ago”.
As well as the prosecution of Lai, freezing of his assets, and raids on the newsroom, Hong Kong’s police commissioner has accused Apple Daily of creating hatred and dividing society, while pro-Beijing media has called for it to be shut down.
An Apple Daily employee, Andy*, says: “There’ve been … rumours we might be shut down before July, some say maybe before the election in September or the end of the year. We simply don’t know what to believe.”
Lai recently wrote to his staff from prison, telling them to stay strong but to also take care – journalism was now a far more dangerous job.
“It definitely affects the morale here,” Andy says. “Not many of us have a personal relationship with Mr Lai but we all know he’s the icon of Apple Daily.”
‘Correcting’ the media
Government powers over the media are increasing, with the national security law (NSL) imposed last year, and a vaguely defined proposed law against “fake news”, which critics say government and police will be allowed to define.
“I think we’re at the early stage of their move to so-called correct the media scene,” he says. “Also Carrie Lam has promised to improve the media system – that implies there are other things, in say regulating the media.”
Lam and her government maintain they respect press freedom and that Hong Kong’s press will not be targeted if they don’t break the law, but the lack of clearly defined offences in the NSL, and police raids on Apple Daily and Stand News have created a well-documented chilling effect.
“Beijing and the Hong Kong government hold all the cards,” says Apple Daily’s Andy. “They have the legal means, the financial resources, to take over the scene of media.
“Those they can control they control, those they can’t control they use brute force or put fear into.”
In response to questions, RTHK denied there was a ban on Tiananmen anniversary coverage, and said there was no intention to have the broadcaster do the same work as the government information office, and that all editorial decisions were in the hands of the broadcaster’s director, Li.
“According to the charter, RTHK is editorially independent and is immune from commercial, political and/or other influences. The producers’ guidelines stipulates that ‘there can never be editorial autonomy without responsibility, freedom without restraint’,” a spokesperson said.
A government spokesperson did not answer questions about how “fake news” would be defined, instead saying any law enforcement actions taken are based on evidence and according to the law, with no relation to someone’s political stance, background or occupation.
“It would be contrary to the rule of law to suggest that people or entities of certain sectors or professions could be above the law.”
For Emily at RTHK, her eyes are on this week. On Thursday last week the government banned the vigil for the second year – ostensibly because of the pandemic, but it’s likely people will mark it anyway, and media will try to cover it, because that’s their job.
“I think June 4 is the point where we’ll see the death of the media: if no one can go to the memorial or if those who report will be arrested or punished, then we’ll understand the freedom is gone.”